“From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth,” Goethe claimed to have told a group of Prussian soldiers after they were routed by France’s revolutionary forces at Valmy on September 20, 1792, and his pronouncement duly features in David Bell’s The First Total War. But Bell does not swoon, as plenty have, at the poet’s clairvoyance. Instead he notes calmly that Goethe wrote his account of Valmy decades later and with some borrowing from the testimonials of others. Nevertheless, there was insight in Goethe’s histrionics; in 1792 the London Times had reported, “The army marching from Paris exhibits a very motley group. There are almost as many women as men, many without arms, and very little provision.” Here was “a people’s war,” with the new French Republic rising to defend itself any which way it could. Bell’s book is an impressively steady, poetically unembellished, evocation of the nativity that awed Goethe.
Bell, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins, sees that birth as monstrous: European total war from 1792 to 1815. From the outset he admits that the concept of total war “seems to get blurrier the closer you come to it.” It is a concept more conventionally associated with the First or Second World War than with the French Revolution and its aftermath. Gen. Erich Ludendorff directed the German war effort in World War I and published his grim pamphlet Der Totale Krieg in 1935. Eight years later, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, shrieked infamously at a crowd in the Berlin Sports Palace: “Do you want total war?” Attempts to define total war, in the abstract, in general or removed from context, are inevitably contentious. Bell settles on a reasonable working definition: “a war involving the complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants.” The extremity of this definition makes the full realization of total war improbable, now or in the past. Acknowledging this, Bell defends the concept in broader political and cultural terms, seeking to explain the emergence of new understandings of war behind the cataclysmic intensification of fighting from Valmy to Napoleon’s fall in 1815.
He uses the oxymoronic notion of a “culture of war” to capture an aspect of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic studies relatively underexplored, but tantalizingly resonant with contemporary political predicaments on both sides of the Atlantic. He cites historian John Keegan’s professional complaint that “not even the beginnings of an attempt have been made by military historians to plot the intellectual landmarks and boundaries of their own field of operations.” Bell addresses this deficit by connecting military and cultural history for the period 1792-1815 through the history of ideas. But he is not writing exclusively, or even primarily, for fellow historians. The First Total War is a book for general readers with stomachs strong enough for history’s grittier details. The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 raised hopes for decades of lasting peace. Similar hopes attended the French Revolution in 1789. As we struggle to come to terms with our own generation’s disappointment, it might prove instructive, if far from comforting, to look back two centuries at shattered hopes not our own. That, at least, is Bell’s suggestion in this engaging, ambitious, intelligent book.
Blending the history of ideas with narrative history is not easy, particularly since thinkers and writers are typically far removed from the stage of history, where decisions on war and peace are made. Immanuel Kant, for example, lived almost all his life, as Bell tells us, “within the chill gray walls, streets, and skies of the Baltic Prussian city of Königsberg, where he taught philosophy uneventfully at the university.” Bell’s solution is largely to segregate thought from action. This is most apparent in an early chapter in which he expounds on Enlightenment theories of war and peace, painstakingly elaborated in the decades of the eighteenth century that led inexorably to revolution. Here the tangles of pacifist thought are patiently but economically and, on occasion, even amusingly, unraveled. François de Salignac de la Mothe Fénelon, an aristocrat and archbishop, was the author of the bestselling novel Telemachus, a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey that “urged Christian pacifism on Christian rulers.” First published in 1699, Telemachus went through more than a hundred editions in the next century, but “today, it is exasperatingly difficult to see why,” Bell frankly admits. “Many chapters–even Telemachus’s despairing search for his father amid the ghosts of Hades–consist of little but large helpings of unadulterated, virtually indigestible virtue, accompanied by verbose sermonizing and much shedding of pious tears.”